Archive for the ‘Madrid’ Category

Coveting my neighbor’s food

October 17, 2007

My mother loves to look at what other people are eating. We all think the grass is greener on the other side but my mom takes it to a whole new level. When our dog was still alive, she would take him for walks and brazenly look in the windows of restaurants in our Sucho-dong neighborhood in Seoul. Sometimes, she would even hold him up to the window so he, too, could see what people were eating. Who knows what the diners thought, seeing a middle-aged woman and a Yorkshire terrier watching them eat, but she didn’t care.

Weird tics diminish with each generation, so when I was in Madrid, eating with Anne at Maceiras at Calle Huertas, 66, I didn’t have the courage to stare full-on at the three boys eating at the table next to us. But I wanted to. Maceiras is a Galician tapas bar, Galicia being the region in the northwest corner of Spain, renowned for its seafood, and these boys were taking full advantage. Being on Huertas, a street known for its bars, Maceiras had an English menu (and a French one, and a German one), but Anne and I still had trouble picking our food. Our neighbors, on the other hand, had obviously hearty appetites and they ate wave after wave of food: a big bowl of razor clams, 2 plates of steak and French fries, and so many other things I couldn’t quite identify and so could only gaze upon with wonder.

Our meal itself was very good, but I think we could have benefited from their sure-footed expertise. It turns out an empanada in Galicia is neither a flaky turnover or a maiz tortilla filled with mole amarillo, but a bready, almost casserole-like dish in which some filling of fish or meat can be found in the middle. Hearty and I’m sure satisfying for a hungry Galician peasant, but not revelatory. Similarly, Anne and I felt just okay about the croquetas. There was nothing wrong with them, they weren’t greasy, but I think they must be like French fries here for Spaniards, standard and beloved and so they are on every menu.

The pulpo, or octopus, however, was excellent, meaty and succulent.

The mushrooms sautéed with jamon were also very good, though probably not as nutritious as we told ourselves they were, being one of the few vegetable dishes we ate in Madrid.

The restaurant was bustling, with plenty of tourists looking for good cheap food, but plenty of locals, too. It was busy but warm, and I loved its rough-hewn tables and even the amateur, unstylized bird on their bright green sign. I also loved how the wine was served in small white bowls; I just love drinking things in bowls. Must be my Asian blood.

Perhaps if I were as brazen as my mother, I could have asked those boys what they were eating or even asked for a taste, but sadly, I am not.


Breakfast in Madrid

October 16, 2007

It’s funny what you realize about your country only once you leave it. Americans, and I include myself, really like to see a list of available items and their prices. It’s important to know how much your coffee costs and that it comes in small, medium, and large. Perhaps it’s because we’re a very diverse country, and you can never really know what you’ll find, or perhaps it’s because we know we can be gouged.

In Spain, however, things are different. In Madrid, in particular, with its old-school, bocadillo bars and little corner cafes, it was hard to find anything announcing what you could get.

So imagine poor Anne and me arriving early in the morning into Madrid, changing trains twice to get from the airport to the hotel by subway, and then looking for breakfast, bleary-eyed. I can barely remember that the café was called Chocolate, and that there was a long bar with middle-aged men eating pastries and drinking coffee and a few café tables. There was a menu on the table, but it seemed to list only fruity, expensive juices, nothing about the coffee everyone was clearly drinking, nor the churros everyone was eating. No one else seemed perturbed; clearly, they all knew what was available. I tried to ask in my Mexican-accented Spanish what was available, and the most we could understand was that there were churros and tostada, or toast. Okay then, some churros and tostada! We were also offered brightly wrapped candies or chocolate, and we had no idea what they were or what they cost or perhaps they were free, who knows?

But we did get better at navigating breakfast. We managed to locate places in small alleys, which is no small feat as the old part of Madrid is 90% small alleys, and we lost the fear that we would be charged something exorbitant and unexpected because we never were. Anne found a strong endorsement for Chocolateria San Gines near Puerta del Sol, and by then, we had learned enough to know that churros were skinny and sugarless and that something called purros or parros were a fatter version, similar to the crullers Chinese people like to eat for breakfast with their congee. It was a good thing Anne had done this research because here, also, there was no menu. That didn’t detour us, though, and we boldly ordered one of both, cost be damned, and happily dipped them into the thickest hot chocolate I have ever had in my life. It almost sat in my spoon like pudding. I almost didn’t miss my morning coffee, the chocolate was so intense. So this is why the churros weren’t dusted with sugar! And our breakfast, as always, cost less than expected.

Our triumph was complete when we ate croissants at Antigua Pasteleria on Calle Pozo, a tiny little one-block street near Puerta del Sol. We had walked by one morning too early, as it didn’t open till 9:30 a.m., but we had seen through the screen doors the happy fat bakers at work. When they saw us peering in, they smiled, “Buenos dias,” and we promised each other we could come back the next day.

The croissants were unlike any croissants I’d ever had. In my former, snootier life, I might not have ordered them, as I used to be very orthodox about my croissants. They were glazed with an orange-scented marmalade and they pulled apart like sweet challah, but even eggier. There was nothing flaky about them, nothing that shattered, nothing that meant my old criteria for an excellent croissant, but I really enjoyed mine. The bakery didn’t sell coffee, so Anne and I wandered towards Puerta del Sol until we found a standard Au Bon Pain-type eatery, which being in Spain, made all its coffee using espresso machines. We found a quiet corner upstairs, with a big window looking out towards Puerta del Sol and ate our croissants and drank our cafes con leche. I don’t know how Anne felt, but I felt proud, like I had come a long way.

Spanish haute cuisine, foam and all

October 15, 2007

Anne is one of the best people you could ever travel with. I know that I can be judgmental, opinionated, and incredibly annoying, especially when it comes to food, but Anne was gracious and kind the entire time we were traveling together in Madrid and Barcelona. Even when I took her to an over-the-top fancy and expensive restaurant in Madrid, where we awkwardly sat surrounded by ladies who lunch and businessmen in suits, she only laughed. In the end, I think we had more fun than anyone else in that restaurant.

I had picked Zaranda because the Maribel Guides said they offered a fantastic 20-28 Euro prix-fixe lunch. Sadly, it was no longer true and we sat there for at least five minutes, wondering if we should just scurry away, poor American mice that we are. I felt so disoriented, and although the very energetic waiter spoke English, his translation of the menu was so rushed. He kept asking us what we wanted, and when Anne finally chose a baby squid appetizer, I said to her, “I didn’t know you liked squid!”, to which she replied, “I didn’t know what it was, I just had to make him stop!”

Also sadly, Zaranda seemed to be a restaurant where most people don’t eat all their food. To me, that’s the only explanation for why the waitstaff kept whisking things away before we were done. So although Anne loved the little sesame cracker in the hors d’oeuvres tray, I never got to have any.

It’s not that the food wasn’t good. The amuse-bouche, a monkfish liver, was sharply salty and delicious, meeting that craving that potato chips meet in a much more downmarket way. And it seemed right that at least at some point in Spain, I should eat something with foam on it.

The chipirone, or the young squid, was also very good, perfectly tender and succulent.

Anne’s young female chicken seemed very bland to me, but I enjoyed my solomillo, or beef filet, with a potato stuffed with menudillos. The waiter translated “menudillos” as kidneys, my dictionary says giblets, and I’m inclined to go with the waiter as I’ve never heard of a cow with giblets. It’s hard with fancy restaurants that like to use words in fanciful ways. I sat there just staring at the menu, feeling like I had learned nothing in four months in Mexico. In any case, it was tender and tasty, though I’m the kind of girl that likes my beef to have some chew to it. I was more excited to be eating menudillos, which had a strong but not unpleasant taste.

The best part, though, was when it came to dessert. When we ordered the toffee molten cake, we were told that it would take some extra time and were fed complimentary little cups of a light, white custard with passionfruit jelly on top. This was delicious and I loved it.

The toffee cake wasn’t bad either, and we finished that, too. But then, as we began to relax and think about how this whole disorienting experience might soon be over, the waiter came over with a platter of little cookies, the petit-fours, saying as he presented them, “Normally, I bring these over with the coffee, and I didn’t know what to do since you didn’t order any coffee, but I thought I’d bring them anyway.” He meant well, but I guffawed when Anne whispered, “He didn’t know what to do with people as cheap as us, but here are the cookies anyway!”

I almost died laughing when Anne followed up with, “I bet we’re the only people in this restaurant who would even consider staying at the Hostal Lopez.” She thought it even funnier that after our meal, we finished the day by touring the stadium Santiago Bernabeu, the home of the Real Madrid futbol team, where she took a particularly memorable photo of me clutching my heart in front of a larger-than-life photo of Zinedine Zidane.

I don’t mean to be criticizing Zaranda, which I’m sure provides a delectable experience for those who are fortunate enough to enjoy it without a thought for their pocketbooks. I’m just happy that Anne and I will have memories of Zaranda that go way, way beyond the food.

Roast suckling pig in Segovia

October 14, 2007

By the time we got to Segovia, our fourth full day in Spain, Anne and I were full of culture, and not in a happy way. Our first day, we arrived in Madrid at 7 a.m. (1 a.m. NY-time), felt a rush of energy from the thrill of being in Spain, and marched out at 9:30 a.m. to see the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace. We kept this up somehow for a couple of days, seeing museums and palaces and cathedrals, and by the third evening, when we had gotten home from a day-trip to Toledo, I said to Anne wanly from my bed, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll sit in a café while you look at the Alcázar in Segovia tomorrow.”

But as we sat on the bus to Segovia, my spirits lifted as I read about Segovia’s specialty—roast suckling pig, or cochinillo. Segovia itself was beautiful, sunny and inviting, in a way that Toledo with its dark, cramped alleys just hadn’t been. I was moved by the 2000-year-old Roman aqueducts, and even enjoyed the Moorish Alcázar, with its Sleeping Beauty turrets and large picture windows, revealing views of rivers, minor castles, and enormous sky. And when it was time to eat lunch, I realized just how much I liked Segovia.

We chose Narizotas, more for its sunny patio than anything else, and ordered the “menu del dia turistico,” which includes a soup of judiones, or white beans, cochinillo, ice cream for dessert, and the glass of wine that is so obligatory, it’s almost always included in the prix-fixe lunches. We also added a plate of jamón ibérico, our first taste of Spain’s famed ham.

The jamón was as delicious as it looked, and we congratulated ourselves for eating vegetables, the ripe tomatoes and herby green sauce, sharp with mustard, that came with the jamón. It’s good that Anne is a doctor, as she was able to reassure me that despite the serious lack of vegetables in my life here, I would not get scurvy in 7 weeks.

The soup of judiones beans was simple, lots of tomatoes and chunks of meat. Good, but not exciting, and to be quite honest, I had a little bit of trouble eating meat that still seemed to have some hair stuck to it.

But the cochinillo was everything I had dreamed it would be. Cochinillo is always made from a 21-day-old piglet that has eaten nothing but its mother’s milk. I don’t know any more because I didn’t have time to do sufficient research on Spanish food before leaving, but luckily, I didn’t need to know more to eat with gusto. The skin didn’t merely crackle, it shattered, and the meat was incredibly tender, melting in its own fat.

We sat in the sun, drinking wine and sparkling water, eating roast pig and watching Segovia locals and tourists walk by. It’s what you imagine life in Spain to be like, no?

First tapas

October 8, 2007

As shocking as it seems, but I didn’t plan out my entire food itinerary before I got here. I only had reservations at one restaurant in Madrid, I had no list of “must-dos.” What I wanted to feel was the culture of food here, for ordinary people everyday, to be in a world where anchovies were normal. Poor Anne, she patiently followed me as I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store at the basement of the department store chain, El Corte Ingles, not looking at me like I was a crazy person while I peered at flan sold in pudding packs, tins of shellfish, and jars of marmalade. She even took a photo of me caressing an entire ham.

So in my first 6 days in Spain, in Madrid, I’ve inevitably had meals that were so-so, not bad, just very ordinary, except it wouldn’t have been very ordinary in New York. I had a cheap bocadillo, or sandwich, the other day, a plain almost tough roll with some fried boquerones, or white anchovies, inside, no mayo, no sauce, no nothing. It was the equivalent of a decent slice of pizza on any random corner in N, but in NY, Whole Foods sells boquerones for some insane price per pound.

And then there are places like Txirimiri, a pintxos/tapas bar in La Latina with food so good that when I dropped half my tapa on the floor, I considered applying the five-second rule and eating it.

Anne and I arrived there by accident. We were aiming for one of the more famous places in La Latina, along Calle Cava Baja or Cava Alta, but it was pouring and we jumped in. Instantly, I was overwhelmed. The bar was lined with people chatting, drinking, eating, there were pintxos, or Basque-style tapas on bread on the counter, and then a blackboard listing more. I’d read all the guide books on how tapas worked, but I felt so frozen, so totally lost. Anne says I hid it well, but I was terrified.

Luckily, I didn’t have to fight for the bartender’s attention and I managed to order a glass of wine and two raciones, or larger portions of tapas, of the blackboard.

This was called a bacalao tempura, and it came on a bed of caramelized onions and peppers, so sweet and rich, and a perfect balance to the golden cod. I had told Anne earlier how much I loved the word “bacalao,” and when I told her it was salt cod, she had been wary, but not after tasting this. The crisp crust, the meltingly tender fish inside—it brought fried fish to a whole new level.

This was called “habitas baby,” and we deduced after it arrived that the “habitas” must refer to the beans. More caramelized onions, which was good as I can never get enough. It was like an intense, salty shot of flavor, topped with jamon and foie.

By now, I was relaxed. The wine was working its magic, especially since it was so cheap, and we just started pointing and eating. I started to fall in love with Madrid. Three nights later, we came back for our last dinner in Madrid and ate another round of the bacalao and things I didn’t need to identify to enjoy.

Txirimiri is special and obviously popular, as packed as it is with hip young things, but in its own way, felt as ordinary as the corner bar selling bocadillos de boquerones fritos. I’ve long gotten over my embarrassment taking pictures of my food, but I felt a pang of sadness, knowing that to eat cheap, delicious food and drink a $2 glass of wine in a comfortable bar was nothing notable for the Spaniards around us. But not so sad that I lost my appetite.